Sunday, March 15, 2009

This Day in Film History (Liz and Dick Wed)

March 15, 1964—Starting a whole new act in their turbulent life together, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor—the screen stars whose illicit romance on the set of Cleopatra made that film the talk of the world even before it opened—married in Montreal.

"For some reason the world has always been amused by us two maniacs," Burton observed not long before his death 20 years later.

The “amusement,” if one could call it that, was certainly in evidence upon their return to the United States after their wedding. In Boston, by the time they had gotten to an elevator, crazed fans had torn the sleeve off Burton’s jacket and chunks of hair and an earring from Taylor.

As a teenager, whenever I heard the media refer to James Taylor and Carly Simon as “the Burton and Taylor of rock ‘n’ roll,” I knew instantly what was meant: an impossibly rich and glamorous couple famed almost as much for their romances and substance abuse as for their wealth and the high (if often uneven) quality of their work.

Some years ago, I read excerpts in Vanity Fair Magazine from Burton’s diary, which he began a year after his marriage to Taylor. Seldom have I read more intelligent and better-written diary entries, and certainly not from someone in a profession more given to saying someone else’s words than creating one’s own.

At the same time, I don’t know, outside of the journals of John Cheever, if I’ve ever read a more self-loathing diarist. Much of the problem derived simply from Burton’s belief that his magnificent gifts were given to a profession that, on the scale of things, was simply useless. "I loathe loathe loathe acting. I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise – for Christ's sake – it," he wrote.

Extramarital affairs in the film world are hardly shocking anymore. But, when Cleopatra was being filmed in the early 1960s, it was still a big deal. Movie stars had only recently emerged from a studio system that cosseted its stars with all sorts of insulation, including publicists who knew how to spike a story with newspapers.

When photos of married stars Burton and Taylor "canoodling" flashed around the world, then, the surprise was palpable and the condemnation (the Vatican accused her, already infamous for stealing Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, of “erotic vagrancy”) swift.

Over the years, the press and public came to associate the lives they portrayed onscreen together with the couple’s offscreen turbulent relationship—not just the infamous historical Antony-Cleopatra relationship at the heart of their hugely disastrous film (originally budgeted for $3 million, it ended up costing $42 million, or $300 million in today’s money), but also Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Taming of the Shrew, and—in a sorry indication of their eroding relationship and taste in roles—the TV film Divorce His/Divorce Hers.

After a dozen years, countless public shouting matches and private infidelities, the marriage was no more. But the two actors still cared for each other. Why?

In his case, it was that voice—not just the famous speaking one that, at its best, made audience members the world over want to go out and buy Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, but also, as I’ve just suggested, that voice on the page—rueful, remorseful and passionate about her.

What about her? Garry Trudeau, in a title inspired by one “Doonesbury” character’s description of her at a low point in her life ("A Tad Overweight, But Violet Eyes to Die For") caught one obvious physical aspect of her appeal. But there was also her humor and, above all, her fierce loyalty.

Norman Mailer once termed Norman Podhoretz a “foul-weather friend”—i.e., someone who provided help invariably only when things were worst. As such male friends as Montgomery Clift, Peter Lawford, Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowell, and Michael Jackson learned over the years, Taylor was very much this type. There are far worse things to be in Hollywood, a place where, if you want to be sure of a friend, you'd better get a dog.

Debbie Reynolds and the Vatican were right—if you were a wife, you would definitely want to hide your husband if Taylor were within the vicinity. But in my book, humor and loyalty redeem an awful lot about a life.

Shortly before he died, explaining his ex’s appeal, Burton remarked to fellow actor John Hurt: “She still fascinates.” All her other surviving husbands and lovers would undoubtedly agree, as does the world, even as she struggles with illness (congestive heart failure) and the old age that beauty-besotted actors--like tempestuous lovers Liz and Dick--dread.

1 comment:

Tiny said...

I love this picture of them! So romantic!